I feel this poem shows Thomas Hardy’s skill as a satirist, as it is both serious and comical.
The opening words are a plea from the souls formerly at rest in a churchyard, cleared to make way for the new railway line:
“O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans”
The poem was inspired by Hardy’s own experience when he witnessed a churchyard being levelled; the peremptory way that those graves were cleared is ghoulishly reflected in this line:
“We late-lamented, resting here, are mixed to human jam”
These words must have seemed shocking at the time, as it was believed that human remains should be intact to greet the Day of Judgement.
However, the dark nature of the poem does not inhibit Hardy’s sense of humour, as headstones are mismatched with their subjects, and bones jumbled up:
“There’s not a modest maiden elf
But dreads the final trumpet,
Lest half of her should rise herself,
And half some local strumpet!”
In my setting of The Levelled Churchyard, I’ve tried to sympathetically bring out both its sombreness and its humour. In part, the music is funereal, and references a well-known funeral march; meanwhile there’s also a hymn subtly hidden in there, at first sombre, and then reinvented into a surprisingly jolly ‘danse macabre’. As for the “sighs and piteous groans” … how could they possibly be left out?
I hope that this setting allows Hardy’s inspiration to shine through – like any good satire, there’s a profound underlying message: nothing, not even death, can stand in the way of progress.